gibraltar high point

How will Brexit affect the British territory of Gibraltar?

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  1. Gibraltarians proudly British and equally European
  2. Border is a 300-year-old point of contention thousands cross daily
  3. Spain holds a veto over British terms for Brexit – and the Rock is a pawn

As soon as you leave its airport and turn onto Winston Churchill Avenue, it’s obvious that Gibraltar, an outpost of the United Kingdom at Spain’s southern tip, is proud to be British.

Nicknamed “the Rock,” the largely self governing territory has been the subject of a three centuries-long sovereignty battle between London and Madrid. Citizens of the British overseas territory voted to stay under sole UK control by around 99 percent in referendums in 2002 and 1967. They voted by a similarly overwhelming margin for Britain to stay within the European Union (EU), in the “Brexit” vote in which the UK narrowly decided to leave it. Now Gibraltar will become one of Britain’s physical borders to the EU.

That vote has thrown Gibraltar’s future and way of life as Mediterranean Brits into doubt.

Brian Reyes, editor of the Gibraltar Chronicle, told WikiTribune that Gibraltarians are fiercely British but also strongly pro-European: “British nationality, but with a Mediterranean dimension,” that is “uniquely rooted in this rock.”

“The Rock” is a hybrid of British and Spanish, with its sunny high streets interspersed with British brands like Boots and Superdrug, otherwise looking like they could be taken from Spain, and locals often speaking Llanito – a mixture of Spanish and English.

But while the UK’s Union Jack flag can be seen all over Gibraltar, its gift shops are also full of soft-toy Barbary monkeys – more on them later – sporting European Union (EU) flags.

With its economy and way of life heavily dependent on people seamlessly passing through its blink-and-you-miss-it border with Spain, Gibraltar could be one of the places that will most affected by Brexit, as it is removed from the bloc against its wishes.

Despite being more than 1,000 miles from the UK, fish and chip shops and red telephone boxes made their way to Gibraltar. Yet stereotypical, gloomy British attitudes didn’t. This positive outlook may be required in an uncertain future as Britain leaves the European Union: threatening a way of life that is Spanish and British all at the same time.

[Where are their families?]

The UK is due to leave the EU on March 29, 2019, but Brexit negotiations are ongoing and the exact terms of the country’s future relationship with the EU remains unclear in important respects: immigration, borders, trade, sovereignty – all critical questions in Gibraltar. A final deal should include agreements on the legal status of citizens, border considerations, financial obligations, and the unpicking or consolidation of a range of other political arrangements made since the UK joined the bloc, then European Economic Community (EEC), in 1973.

The post-Brexit ramifications for daily life in Gibraltar could be huge. Gibraltar’s low 10 percent corporate tax rate (PWC) could leave it vulnerable to EU economic sanctions (UK House of Lords Brexit: Gibraltar report) against undue tax competition – less than half the rate of of Spain.

If the UK doesn’t negotiate access to Spanish healthcare for Gibraltar’s citizens – which they get on a reciprocal basis now – they may have to return to the UK for state-funded specialist medical treatment.

In the same report from the British parliament’s upper house, Gibraltar’s government highlights that virtually all of its food comes from Spain and all of its waste is transported across the border where it is processed. All of these issues remain unresolved.

Reyes from the Gibraltar Chronicle said while there’s uncertainty in Gibraltar “this is a pretty resilient community. I mean, we’ve seen challenge in the past … we’re optimists.”

But Gibraltar’s biggest challenge since its entire civilian population was evacuated during World War Two could be dealing with new rules on the movement of workers at its border with Spain. The 2.6-square-mile territory has boomed in the last 30 years thanks to its low corporation tax attracting global financial, gambling, and gaming companies. These are staffed by Gibraltarians but also thousands of Spanish and EU workers who commute across the Spanish border daily. Gone are the historical days of Spanish workers commuting to Gibraltar by bicycle, except a statue commemorating them. They have been replaced by hundreds of cars queuing to go through Spain’s border and across Gibraltar’s runway, on their way to work.

Under the key EU pillar of the free movement of people between member states this is relatively easy, with up to 40 percent of Gibraltar’s workforce (House of Lords report) commuting to 10,473 jobs on “the Rock” daily. And virtually all of Gibraltar’s tourists arrived from Spain in 2014 (Open Britain report).

But all this could soon change. Unless special Brexit arrangements are made, when the UK leaves the EU, the border between Gibraltar and Spain will no longer be frictionless.

View from above of Gibraltar (CC BY SA 4.0; Author: Port of Gibraltar)
A view from above Gibraltar with the airport runway and port in foreground (CC BY SA 4.0; Author: Port of Gibraltar)

Send for more monkeys

Gibraltar is a historically fought-over territory, a crucial strategic entry and exit point between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. It was captured by Anglo-Dutch forces in 1704, during the War of the Spanish Succession, and Spain ceded it to Great Britain as part of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, setting that conflict. Two Spanish monarchs made unsuccessful attempts to regain the territory in the 18th century, before it developed into a vital base during for the Royal Navy during World War Two.

During a 2013 meeting to try and solve Spain’s border dispute with Gibraltar, then Prime Minister David Cameron said: “Britain will always stand up for the people of Gibraltar.” Then he called the UK’s EU referendum, which he lost and caused him to resign, potentially leaving Gibraltar with greater border issues.

The day after that vote in 2016, former Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, called for shared British-Spanish sovereignty of Gibraltar, causing senior UK politicians to suggest that the UK could even go to war with Spain (Vox).


According to legend however, while the Barbary macaque colony remains in place, the territory will stay under British control. This even prompted UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill to import more monkeys from Morocco during World War Two, when their number dipped to just seven.

“The Rock” is now home to around 160 Barbary macaques, which have become a symbol of the territory and a major tourist attraction, though nobody is quite sure where they originally came from.

Gibraltar barbary macaques are often called Barbary apes but they are actually a species of monkeys, and not apes. Nobody is quite sure how they got to Gibraltar. (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewelll/WikiTribune
Barbary macaques are often called Barbary apes but they are actually a species of tailless monkey. (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)

Not your average commute

Gibraltar’s airport runway crosses Winston Churchill Avenue, the only entry or exit road, forcing walkers, workers, and commuters to wait several times a day while flights take off and land. These people then have to pass through the Spanish-Gibraltar border, which can take minutes or several hours. [[[[[why might it take several hours]]]]

A frictionless border with Gibraltar is important to the neighboring Spanish region of Andalusia and the next-door town, La Linea de Concepcion, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe at around 35 percent.

Commuters and vehicles are held back while a flight takes off from the runaway which intersects the road to the Gibraltar-Spanish border (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)
Commuters and vehicles are held back while a flight takes off from the runway which intersects the road to the Gibraltar-Spanish border (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)

Lord Boswell, the Chairman of the European Union Committee which produced the Lords report, told WikiTribune that it’s “a mutually beneficial process” and that border restrictions “would take things back 30 years minimum.”

But crossing the border isn’t always plain sailing. Reyes told WikiTribune that “the border has in the past been used almost as a political pressure point. So it’s like a tap. Turn it on, turn it off.” 

[[[[Explain]]]] A spokesman for ASCTEG, a group representing Spanish workers working in Gibraltar, told WikiTribune: “Gibraltar was accepted in the UEFA [European soccer championship] right. Problems on the border, two, three, four days … Someone from the British royal family came to Gibraltar for a visit, border closed.” 

President of ASCTEG, Molina Sanchez (left) and ASCTEG spokesman Juan Hose (right) Photo by: Harry Ridgewelll/WikiTribune)
ASCTEG President Molina Sanchez (left) and spokesman Juan Hose (right) Photo by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)

Hose said the right-wing Spanish PP (People’s Party) uses the excuses of drugs, arms, and money-smuggling to justify searching everyone and causing long lines, but its real motivation is political. “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “When we are so close … The two cities are together … it’s like a big city.”

He says their cause has reduced PP votes in the Cádiz constituency, who were the party with the most votes under proportional representation in Spain’s 2016 general election.

Gibraltarian Stephanie Martinez told WikiTribune that she has experienced “three-hour walking queues and 12-hour car queues” when things were really bad “political wise.”

The tables have turned

In 1969 Spanish dictator Franco closed the Spain-Gibraltar border. It was not fully reopened until 1985, after the UK threatened Madrid that unless it did so London would veto Spain’s entry to the EEC in 1986 . Now the tables have turned.

In its 2017 draft Brexit guidelines, the EU gave Spain an effective veto over Gibraltar by stating that no deal on the EU’s future relationship with the UK would apply to the territory without Spain’s agreement.

Gibraltar’s Deputy Chief Minister Joseph Garcia told WikiTribune: “People felt that it [giving Spain a veto] was an unnecessary slap in the face to people [Gibraltarians] who had voted 96 percent to remain in the EU.” 

But Garcia said that Gibraltar’s government’s view is that Spain’s veto “is illegal” and Gibraltar will challenge it in court if Madrid invokes it.

WikiTribune journalist Harry Ridgewell interviewing Gibraltar's chief minister, Joseph Garcia (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)
WikiTribune journalist Harry Ridgewell interviewing Gibraltar’s chief minister, Joseph Garcia (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)

However, if Madrid vetoed the UK Brexit deal and Gibraltar’s challenge failed, would London reject a deal which didn’t include Gibraltar? It seems unlikely that the UK would put Gibraltar’s 30,000 population ahead of 65 million people on the mainland, even if Garcia says David Davis, the UK Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, assured him that “they would not do the deal without Gibraltar.”

As Jon Henley, The Guardian‘s European affairs correspondent, told WikiTribune: “That’s the $64,000 question. It’s pretty hard to see that the rights of the small rock off the southern tip of Spain are going to be privileged over a vital sector of the UK economy.”

Fredrick Martin, a senior trade union official for Unite in Gibraltar branch, expresses more optimism. “I don’t think [the UK will] actually believe that it’s good and proper to throw [Gibraltar] underneath the bus … for the purpose of getting a better deal … Fingers crossed.”

Gibraltar’s minister for financial services and gaming, Albert Isola, pictured in his government office (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Juan Carlos Teuma)
Minister for Financial Services and Gaming, Albert Isola, pictured in his government office (CC BY-SA 4.0; Photo by: Juan Carlos Teuma)

But how do people feel on “the Rock?”

WikiTribune visited Gibraltar’s Admiral Casino on Sunday night and asked locals in between games of bingo. While Gibraltarians were characteristically optimistic about the future, one British woman who had relocated there told WikiTribune that if Gibraltar gives up the UK flag she would leave. “They [the Spanish] don’t really want Gibraltar, they want to bring Gibraltar down, for nothing,” she said.

Gibraltar’s minister for financial services and gaming, Albert Isola, told WikiTribune that after the referendum it felt like a “morgue,” but it might not be as bad as first envisaged. Isola said that Gibraltar government’s sectoral analysis on Brexit found that roughly 90 percent of its financial services sector is accessing the UK market and just 10 percent the EU. Isola added that the UK has assured Gibraltar that it will have the same access to the UK market after Brexit, and that has given businesses confidence.  

Samantha Barrass, chief executive officer of the Gibraltar Financial Services Commission, told WikiTribune that she is seeing a “very calm reaction, and not the kind of sight that some people feared.” Barrass said new applications for authorizations have increased in a way she hadn’t anticipated and that firms are being “quite realistic and pragmatic.” They’re talking about staying and setting up new subsidiaries in another European jurisdiction, she said.

However, Peter Howitt, founder of Ramparts law firm, which is based in Gibraltar and the UK and provides support for financial and tech companies, is less upbeat.

He told WikiTribune that companies benefit from providing services to the EU’s single market and that could be lost. If it is, Howitt said “they would definitely need to have a new company that’s authorized within the EEA [European Economic Area – the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway].”

I can’t think of … anyone, who’s said that they’ve watched this unfold with confidence. Most people consider this to be a kind of train wreck, in slow motion, watching the establishment in the UK tear itself apart to some extent,” he said.

“A decision needs to be made about whether the UK or the Conservative Party is gonna pursue a little England, splendid isolationist policy, which is a risk, I think. Or whether it’s gonna actually look at what the UK’s position should be in the modern world.”

Stuck with the UK

A map of Europe showing the UK, Spain and Gibraltar One of the highest points of Gibraltar (CC BY-SA 4.0; Graphic by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)
A map of Europe showing the UK, Spain and Gibraltar (CC BY-SA 4.0; Graphic by: Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune)

If a special Brexit deal continued the current arrangements, many potential challenges for Gibraltar could be avoided. In November, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, said [Politico] he wanted a “bespoke” deal for Gibraltar, including keeping freedom of movement and access to the EU single market, even if the UK doesn’t get these.

It’s not clear whether Gibraltar’s government is still pursuing this. When WikiTribune asked whether Gibraltar is pushing for a special deal, financial services minister Isola said: “I don’t believe we are.”

Deputy Chief Minister Garcia told WikiTribune that Gibraltar is looking to maintain the status quo during a Brexit transition period and will then look “to negotiating a new relationship with the EU once we’re out.”

It seems that Gibraltar – and its Mediterranean-but-British people – will have the same deal as the United Kingdom on day one of post-Brexit life in March 2019.

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